The CTE Headlines Get Ahead Of The Science, But Maybe That's Not So Bad

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Raiders great Ken Stabler suffered from “moderately severe” CTE when he died, according to researchers at the Boston center that examined his donated brain. Another dead football player with cognitive impairment, another CTE diagnosis. The only real surprise is that anyone is surprised—and that anyone thinks they know what it means.

Stabler, a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame class to be announced on Saturday, died last summer at age 69 from colon cancer, had been showing signs of mental decline in his final years.

Kim Bush, his longtime partner who met Stabler in 1999, said that in addition to showing signs of all the physical punishment he absorbed to his knees and back over his career, the father of three daughters also started showing signs of cognitive impairment and suffered from headaches as he entered his 60s.


In addition to the “severe” headaches, Bush said Stabler had some disorientation, forgetfulness and even started repeating stories. She said the most obvious thing was that he had trouble sleeping.

“He would say, ‘My head is rattling,’ Bush told OTL. “And it was. It was, in fact, rattling. It intensified (over the last several years).”


Stabler agreed to donate his brain to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, where researchers sliced it up and discovered the telltale signs of CTE, a degenerative disease associated with repeated head traumas. According to Dr. Ann McKee, who conducted the examination, Stabler had Stage 3 CTE, on a four-stage scale.

What is noteworthy, perhaps, is that Stabler was a quarterback and took far fewer blows to the brain than did players at other positions. But that’s no panacea, especially not for someone who played as long as he did. Quarterbacks get hit and get tackled, and contrary to a still widely held belief, it doesn’t take a helmet-to-helmet, leg-wobbling blow to slam the brain against the inside of the skull. It’s helpful to remember that a concussion is a thing that happens, an action, not a thing that a player has. (What we typically think of as concussions—wooziness, headaches, confusion—is more accurately described as concussion syndrome. That’s what keeps players out of games. But the brain is being punished on every hit.)


The process of acquiring CTE and the effects it has are still poorly understood, and the litany of NFL players receiving post-mortem diagnoses, while good for headlines (and for funding), aren’t telling us much anymore. The Boston CTE center is up to 90 cases of CTE found in the 94 players it has examined, but the study is as flawed and self-selecting as studies come. It only really tells us one thing: of the 94 former NFL players who felt so strongly that there was something wrong with their brains that they were willing to donate them, 90 were correct.

We don’t know a lot. We don’t know the rate at which CTE develops, or the mechanism. We don’t know the correlation with playing football as compared to other contact sports. We don’t know if some people are predisposed to developing it. We don’t know how its symptoms manifest in the living. (We don’t know if it has symptoms—correlation is not causation.) We don’t know if there’s treatment. Each announcement of another CTE-riddled NFL brain amounts to, basically, cataloguing.

But that research is ongoing, and it’s a good thing it’s still a sexy diagnosis worthy of front-page stories on and in the New York Times—as we’ve seen, the NFL happily buried the research until it became too mainstream to ignore. Still, we know preciously little more about CTE than we did 15 years ago: football can do strange and bad things to your brain. If that’s the only takeaway, if the general public and parents and young football players internalize that, it’s still a big victory for giving people the knowledge to make important choices. The NFL long had its finger on the scales, but Ken Stabler’s brain is yet another weight tipping them the other way.